Thursday, March 30, 2006

Boo Radley and Moby Dick

Last night as I was riding home on the light rail, I overheard a couple ofyoung men debating the existence of God. One man said he didn't believe in God; the other thought it was preposterous not to believe in God. The man supporting the existence of God was making some sort of argument from design. The fact that we can talk to one another points to the existence of God, he claimed. The other man said this was simply a result of evolution.

I refrained from joining in, but it got the wheels turning in my mind. I happen to regard the existence of God as plain for all to see. I think you have to be taught ways of thinking that get around the existence of God. At the same time, I realize that the rational arguments in favor of God's existence fall well short of what could honestly be called "proofs".

So why do I believe in God? I think it comes down to what kind of world you think we live in. Is it a cold, hard place? Or is it a place of love?

Moby Dick offers us a view of the world as cold and unfeeling. Those who fight against this cold reality are killed by it. While Mellville wasn't necessarily denying the existence of God, he finds the hiddenness of God torturous. In modern times, there has been a distinct movement to give up the hunt. The absence of God is interpreted as the non-existence of God. No longer feared, God is dismissed as a myth.

As an alternative, I'd like to offer Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird as a model of God in the world. In the beginning, the children fear Boo. He's a monster to them -- if he's really there at all. But gradually, a new perception dawns on them. The reason? He leaves little gifts for them in a tree outside his house. He mends Jem's pants when Jem gets caught in the fence. He secretly covers Scout with a blanket on a cold night. And eventually, he saves their lives.

This is how I think we can see God in the world. God is the mysterious stranger who touches our lives with anonymous acts of kindness.

I was explaining this to my wife over dinner last night, and she challenged me to provide an example. As it turns out, I had one handy. Earlier in the evening, as I was riding the shuttle bus to the light rail station, I was reading. It was about 6:15 and the light was poor. Then as the bus turned a corner, my page was suddenly flooded with light. I looked to see where it was coming from. For a split second, I thought someone was shining a spotlight at the bus. Then I realized the "spotlight" was the sun. And it felt as if it were shining there just for me.

Now, I know, any skeptic would laugh at this example, and by itself it would be silly. But it is the accumulation of little things like this that convince me that God loves me.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Humility and Helplessness

I was at a conference last week where the speaker referenced a book called Learned Helplessness. It was part of a talk on making people happy by giving them control. Apparently, the theory behind the book is that as people repeatedly experience situations where they lack control, they eventually develop a sort of personality disorder where they expect to have no control and become demoralized. And this is reversed by giving people little bits control.

Then this weekend, I watched Rent. If you've seen this movie, you know that several of the characters are struggling with helplessness. The HIV-positive song writer sang a song about glory. He wanted to write one great song to bring him glory before he died.

So often our hope is misplaced. I think the Buddhists are right that suffering arises from desire. But I think Jesus has a better solution than Buddha. Buddha tells us to give up our desires. Jesus tells us to trust in God. Neither leaves room to strive for glory.

The problem here is leaning humility and contentment without dehumanizing and bowing to the status quo, to give up ambition but maintain hope.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Buy the Book

A few weeks ago, I gave a tentative endorsement of Christopher Seitz's commenrary on Isaiah 1-39, based on having read the first few chapters. Now, having finished reading the whole thing, I must change my tentative endorsement to an outright mandate. Buy this book!

Seitz's commentary did for me the best thing that a Biblical commentary possibly could do. It made me love the book of Isaiah more than I already did (which is quite a trick given how much I already loved Isaiah). His exposition of the larger literary structure of the book and the way he highlights the theological theme of the hope for a righteous king was simply outstanding. It makes me look at Isaiah with fresh eyes and stand in awe of its sheer beauty.

Even if you haven't been thinking about reading a commentary on Isaiah, give this book a try.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Desert Spirituality for Lutherans

In the late third and early fourth centuries Christians began flocking to the Egyptian desert in search of spiritual fulfillment. The lives of people such as St. Paul the Hermit, St. Anthony, St. Macarius and St. Pachomius very quickly became legendary, and the wisdom of the Desert Fathers and Mothers is still one of the great treasures of the Church. These desert pilgrims, spiritual athletes they are sometimes called, laid the foundation for the monastic movement within Christianity.

The story of St. Augustine's "conversion" is often told, how he was in his garden and heard the voices of children singing, "Tolle lege, tolle lege!" It is even sometimes noted that what he took up and read was Romans 13:13-14, "Not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires." What is less often recited outside of Augustine's Confessions is that the reason he was in the garden to begin with was that a friend had just told him the story of St. Anthony and he was anguished over his own inability to overcome the sins of the flesh.

Extreme asceticism is certainly one of the images that comes to mind when we think of the desert monastics. On the surface it would seem that this is exactly the kind of "monkery" that drove Martin Luther to the point of despair as he tried to make himself worthy of heaven.

Even so, though I am an enthusiastic Lutheran, I like to see what other branches of the faith have discovered, so last year I read a collection of sayings of the Desert Fathers. I was delighted to find it not full of misanthropic otherworldliness but rather full of genuine humility, warmth and compassion. For instance, one of my favorite sayings was this:
A certain brother had sinned, and the priest commanded him to go out from the church. But Bessarion rose up and went out with him, saying, "I too am a sinful man."
And so I took a liking to the desert tradition. Then this year as I was seeking a good devotional for the Lenten season, I came across The Desert: An Anthology for Lent.

In a previous post I described my Ash Wednesday revelation. Preparing to spend Lent with a devotional on the desert, I wanted to "find my desert" and I realized that the desert is me. This Lent, I believed, would be about standing before God as I am.

The late Gerhard O. Forde once wrote that sanctification is the art of getting used to unconditional justification. This may sound like a cop out that denies any reality to sanctification -- that is, until you actually try it. I think the great Christian tradition of desert spirituality offers a key to understanding the way in which one is sanctified by getting used to unconditional justification.

In what follows I am keanly aware of being a novice, but I can also see the brightness and potential of what I've stumbled upon. Kindly consider this a pilgrim's report from the road. The quotations are from the aforementioned anthology.
When you retreat into yourself, you should stand before the Lord, and remain in His presence, not letting the eyes of the mind turn away from the Lord. This is the true wilderness--to stand face to face with the Lord.
-Theophan the Recluse
In the life of Christian spirituality, the first thing we must learn to do is to allow ourselves to come before God. Perhaps this is the only thing we need to learn to do. But it is something we must admit to being very ambivalent about.

What I learned on Ash Wednesday is that I want to come before God properly adorned. I want some bling, something to show I belong in the presence of God. Failing that, I'd probably settle for a suitable covering, a garment of skin, or fig leaves if necessary.

But the point of entry of the desert is giving up everything you have. For the spiritual athletes of third century Egypt, that meant physical belongings -- but also much more. For each of us, it must mean at least our spiritual pretensions. To come before God in the way of the desert, we must come as we are -- as we really are, not as we wish we were.
There is a physical desert, inhabited by a few exceptional men and women who are called to live there; but more importantly, there is an inner desert, into which each one of us must one day venture. It is a void; an empty space for solitude and testing.
-Frere Ivan
Yes, testing. Are we getting into monkery here? Have we strayed from our firm Lutheran castle? No. What's being tested is how we will react to what we find when left to ourselves. When we see ourselves, will we turn toward ourselves? Will we despair? Or dare we still turn toward God?

The Sacred Space daily prayer often offers a quotation from St. Ignatius of Loyola recalling, "In those days God taught me as a teacher teaches a pupil." That hasn't been my experience this Lent. Rather I would say, "In these days, God has taught me as a parent teaches a child sent to time out."

Generally speaking, I tend to feel close to God. I have a sense of God's presence. But this Lent, as I've been "led into the desert" so to speak, I've felt that distinctly less. What I thought was going to be an experience of standing before God has become more a lesson of standing alone. But I think I understand.
Not everyone is called to face the particular trials of St. Anthony but each one of us has, sooner or later, to confront the terrible demons which we carry inside: the demons of aggression, resentment, pride, sadness, despair.
-Frere Ivan
This is my experience. As I've tried to turn away from the form and beauty available in verbal prayer in order to focus intently on sittingly quietly waiting on God, I've instead found that my own mind generated more noise as if to fill the void.

One course of action would be to seek some method to repress the noise, but this is just another spiritual pretension. So I've tried to wait for God in the midst of the noise. Recognizing that the noise, and the temptation to which it calls me, is me. This is part and parcel of standing before God as myself. This is a way of getting used to unconditional justification.

Having read the account of spiritual pilgrims who have gone before me, I am confident to say that most, if not all, who know the noise I'm referring to know that it's not an indifferent noise. It's ugliness. It's the lower parts of myself coming to the fore. And it hurts to have that exposed as I'm trying to stand before God.

But where else would it be? Where would I hide it that God would not see? The shame isn't caused by God seeing it. It's caused by me seeing it while I'm thinking of God. And, ultimately, this is goodness.

Therefore, I end with one last wonderful quote which I think captures, much better than I otherwise could, the essence of what I've learned so far about desert spirituality for Lutherans.
Before we can surrender ourselves, we must become ourselves. No one can give up what they do not possess.
-Thomas Merton
Come to the desert.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Talkin' 'bout Palestine

This week and last week the Speaking of Faith radio program has featured interviews presenting two perspectives on the Israel-Palestine conflict. The first week's interview with Yossi Klein Halevi provided an insightful look at the situation through the eyes of a Jew who is sympathetic to Muslim religion and the Palestinian people. This week, Mohammed Abu-Nimer and Sami Adwan give a Palestinian perspective.

If you're interested in this topic, you should also check our Water from the Rock from the Lutheran Voices series. It's an anthology of short pieces written by Palestinian Lutherans.

Lutheran Carnival Too

Is there anyone who reads my blog who doesn't already know about this?

Thanks to the initiative of LutheranChik, there's going to be a new Lutheran carnival in town (not affiliated with the well-established confessional Lutheran Carnival).

The first gathering will be based on that most arcane of topics, Lutheran spirituality.

Check out the details at Walking the Midway.

Friday, March 17, 2006

What Is the Gospel?

A few years ago I was at a men's retreat sponsored by the Lutheran congregation I belonged to at the time. One of the guest speakers was a self-identified Lutheran with a Ph.D. from U. of Tubingen who is now involved with Campus Crusade for Christ. Naturally, his talk had to do with the Four Spiritual Laws as an evangelism tool, and how he had become a Christian through a friend sharing said laws with him.

I sought him out afterward and said that I didn't find the 4 Laws to square very well with Lutheran theology. He agreed. So I asked him what he does with that. He talked about how Lutheran theology sees people meeting God through Word and Sacrament. I agreed. Then he asked, what do you do about people who don't belong to a church? Immediately, he answered his own question: You have to share the Gospel with them.

I wasn't satisfied, but I let it go at the time. Now I wish I had followed up. (Like St. Paul, my letters are weighty and strong, but my presence is weak and my speech is contemptible.)

My chief concern with this man's answer was that he seemed to be distinguishing between preaching the Word and sharing the Gospel, though that may have just been a misunderstanding. Beyond that, I would have liked to have discussed just what is meant by "sharing the Gospel."

It seems to me that this is the elephant in the room of modern ecclesiastical differences. We squabble over things like the historic episcopate and human sexuality, but these are red herrings compared to the question of what, exactly, constitutes the Gospel.

It would be helpful, but still not bulletproof, if somewhere in the New Testament someone said, "This is the Gospel...." The fact that this wasn't done should tip us off to a certain depth in the concept that is often underappreciated.

The closest thing we have to a Biblical definition is in Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, where he says, "For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures..." (1 Co. 15:3-4).

Now many people are tempted to grab this and say, "Case closed. The Gospel is 'Christ died for our sins.'" I don't think this is wrong, but I do think it is too simple. You may remember my quotation from Abraham Heschel, "In the realm of theology, shallowness is treason." This is nowhere more true than in defining the Gospel. Mark 1:1, to cite one example, speaks against a simple understanding of what the first Christians meant by the Gospel.

But in many, many churches, it is treated as being just that simple. Jesus died for your sins. That is the whole Gospel. Now we can move on to talking about morality. Yikes!

And yet, we must have a concise way of sharing the Gospel. This also came up in comments discussion with p. softly on another topic. I am convinced that this is why mainline churches, including Lutheran churches, resort to the "evangelical"/conservative methods and materials like the Four Spiritual Laws. It's what's available.

But I think we need to do better.

So I ask myself, "What is the Gospel?" I think we need to begin, not with 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 but with Matthew 4:23, "Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people."

To me, the Gospel is that in the person of Jesus Christ the kingdom of God has begun to break into this world. In Christ Jesus, God has begun to fulfill his promise of new heavens and a new earth.

Now, yes, the Crucifixion of Christ is an important part of this, but so is his Incarnation, his Resurrection, and his earthly ministry. And, not to be overlooked, so is the continuing work of the Christian Church in the world. We aren't just hanging around waiting for part 2. We're here to bring in the kingdom!

Now I'm keanly aware of having now fallen somewhat short of the task I set out for myself. I'm still left with a presentation of the Gospel that, while clear to me, may be opaque to those not in the know, but what can I do in so short a space?

Quick, somebody print some catchy marketing materials.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

What's Wrong with the Four Spiritual Laws?

In a comment on my previous post, p. softly asked, "What don't you like about the 4 spiritual laws, besides that they are not the whole story and are very individualistic?"

Fair enough.

Paul writes in his letter to the Phillipians, "What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice."

So, I'm on dangerous ground here. Apparently the Four Spiritual Laws "work" for a lot of people. They're certainly not as bad as some of the nonsense that goes on in the name of Christianity. But I take issue with them.

The statement of the laws below is from and the emphasized words below are emphasized the same way there.

1. God LOVES you and offers a wonderful PLAN for your life.

This is probably the one I take the most issue with. The problem is that it really only makes any sense for people living in a nice, comfortable middle/upper class lifestyle, and even for them only when things are going relatively well.

Rabbi Irving Greenberg has proposed the following principle for God talk after the Holocaust: "No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made which would not be credible in the presence of burning children." Clearly, the "first spiritual law" fails this test.

This might seem like a pretty harsh standard to apply to people who are just trying to share the love of Christ with people they meet, and I wouldn't apply it if this statement were not so front and center in their evangelistic methodology. But as I indicated in my previous post, the issue is maintaining Chrisianity as a credible worldview. If "God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life" is the foundation of "the Christian worldview" it will crumble when the rains fall, the floods come and the winds beat on the house of faith.

Half the people in the world live on less than two dollars a day. I'm not going to tell them that God has a wonderful plan for their life.

2. Man is SINFUL and SEPARATED from God. Therefore, he cannot know and experience God's love and plan for his life.

This is a carefully crafted statement which dances around the question of whether or not God actually does love and extend grace to the "sinful and separated" people. In clumsy hands it can (and does) easily become "You're a bad person, and that's why you don't know God."

3. Jesus Christ is God's ONLY provision for man's sin. Through Him you can know and experience God's love and plan for your life.

This is a nasty, backhanded presentation of the Gospel. It means to say that through Christ you can know God, but it actually begins by saying, if you aren't a Christian you're one of those bad people that God doesn't love.

Instead of saying, "The love of God is extended to all people in Christ," it says, "The love of God is ONLY extended to Christians."

4. We must individually RECEIVE Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord; then we can know and experience God's love and plan for our lives.

I might have been wrong when I said that the first law is the one that I take most issue with. This is at least a close second.

The first thing I take issue with here is the word "individually." You're on your own. Nobody can do this for you. I've told you how to say the prayer, but now the ball's in your court.

But, Lutheran that I am, I don't believe the ball is ever out of God's court.

The thing that troubles me about this is that it presents a picture where God made salvation possible and then stepped back and waited to see who would take the offer. This is nothing less than a misrepresentation of God.

The God I worship is active in the world, constantly working in and through people's lives, whether they've received him or not, to accomplish the salvation, not just of individuals, but of the world. As the Orthodox say, no one is saved alone.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Reason and Imagination

The Fall 2005* issue of Christian History quotes C.S. Lewis as follows:
"If the intellectual climate is such that, when a man comes to the crisis at which he must either accept or reject Christ, his reason and imagination are not on the wrong side, then his conflict will be fought out under favourable conditions. Those who help produce and spread such a climate are therefore doing useful work: and yet no such great matter after all. Their share is a modest one; and it is always possible that nothing--nothing whatever--may come of it. That does not mean we should down tools."
In Lewis' time, the enemy of "reason and imagination" that needed to be fought was the prevailing cultural assumption that Christianity is illogical superstition, This view, propogated, then and now, by the academic establishment, is still alive and well in spite of Lewis' heroic efforts, but I think that within American culture today we face another battle for the reason and imagination of the multitudes, and it comes, in part, from people with clumsier minds than Lewis' taking up the weapons he left behind. The opponent I speak of is fundamentalist Christianity.

When people in America today (I can't speak for other parts of the world) come to the crisis at which they must either accept or reject Christ, many of them have been biased against Christianity by Christians! The conservative, non-denominational forms of Christianity have had wild success in growing their numbers, but has it not been a Pyrrhic victory? How many people have been turned away from Christianity by these groups?

This obviously applies to the Bible-thumping holier-than-thou Christians whom we can't even love to hate because they're so repellent, but, referring back to Lewis' comments on "reason and imagination" and the "intellectual climate," I think we must also consider the effects of well-meaning and usually harmless folks who nevertheless promote ideas like Biblical inerrancy, young earth creationism, the Rapture, penal theories of the atonement and, yes, I'll say it, the Four Spiritual Laws.

If this is what Christianity is, most people will reject it. And, unfortunately, those who hold these views have been loudly and publicly stating that this is what Christianity is, while we who believe otherwise have cloistered ourselves out of the public eye and refuted their idea of Christianity in private.

I know, the problem becomes, who gets to say what Christianity is? As a society, we are averse to dogma, and the historical mainstream of Christianity has taken to accomodating that view, while the evangelical right rejects it and says, "This is what Christianity is."

It seems to me that a large part of the task of apologetics today must involve making clear to the culture that Christianity is not what our fundamentalist bretheren would have them believe. We who consider ourselves "traditional Christians" have done a marvelous job keeping the faith passed on through the one, holy catholic and apostolic Church fresh and relevant, but we've mostly kept this to ourselves. We've forgotten, or chosen to ignore, wishing we could sweep it under the carpet, the fact that the historical Church from which we have come spent much of its energies clarifying the faith and correcting distortions of it. We call it "infighting"; they called in "refutation of hereisies."

Wednesday, March 08, 2006


If you've ever wanted a good commentary on Isaiah, Christopher Seitz' commentary from the Interpretation series looks like a good candidate (at least for chapters 1-39).

His excursus on the identity of "Immanuel" is simply masterful. Seitz takes seriously the historical context of Isaiah's writing and draws on the book's contrast of Ahaz and Hexekiah to conclude that the Immanuel sign refers to Hezekiah, but not stopping there, he draws in the traditionally messianic passages in 9:2-7 and 11:1-10, showing how they are related to the Immanuel sign and argues that Hezekiah himself is presented as a representative of the possibilities and hopes inherent in Isaiah's idea of kingship, thus validating the Christian appropriation of these texts.

Execellent scholarship and edifying exposition.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Spring Training

It's spring training for the announcers too. I have to remind myself of that.

The WGN announcers today compared Joe Crede to Brooks Robinson.

Deep breaths...

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Seven Songs

via LutherPunk

List seven songs you are into right now. No matter what the genre, whether they have words, or even if they're any good, but they must be songs you're really enjoying now. Post these instructions in your blog along with your seven songs. Just post a note that you've joined in!

"Down to the River to Pray" by The Muses

This song came to me by way of "O Brother Where Art Thou" and it really is just hypnotic. Thanks to the wonders of Yahoo Music Unlimited I was able to browse about a dozen versions, and the one by The Muses suited me best, though the Von Trapp Children do a pretty mean rendition too.

"Box of Spiders" by Drive-by Truckers

This also owes a hat-tip to LutherPunk. I had never heard of the Truckers until he recommended their Pizza Deliverance album, and I've got to say thanks. This is good stuff. This song reminds me of the Dante-esque image of hell offered in Doestoevsky's Crime and Punishment. And how often can you talk about the Drive-by Truckers, Dante and Doestoevsky in the same sentence?

"Rock in a Weary Land" by the Georgia Sea Island Singers

This is an African American spiritual that I was introduced to listening to Craig Koestler's "Genesis to Revelation" lectures. Dr. Koestler's version is pretty inspired, but the Georgia Sea Island Singers probably capture the original intent of the song better. (Click here and scan to 14:35 to hear Dr. Koestler sing it.)

"This Little Light of Mine" by Blind James Campbell and his Nashville Street Band

I heard this on NPR one night, and I was just hooked. Imagine what it would be like if your Sunday school teacher was a master bluesman! This is it.

"Son of a Preacher Man" by Dusty Springfield

Originally, I didn't intend this list to have such a religious theme to it, but this stuff really is what I'm listening to now. This is another gem gleaned from Yahoo Music. How can Dusty Springfield's other songs be so consistently bad? Even so, her voice has a certain quality such that I probably shouldn't be listening to this during Lent.

"Jesus Doesn't Want Me For a Sunbeam" by Nirvana

With this song I did decide to intentionally run with the religious theme that had emerged, but since that theme was already distorted with "Son of a Preacher Man" I thought it would be fun to let it get really bent.

"Creeping Death" by Metallica

And as long as my religious theme is getting really bent.... For those who don't know, this song is a heavy metal version of the exodus story. It's a perfect illustration of how you can use the Biblical words and still miss the point completely. But it rocks!

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

The Kind of Lent It's Going To Be

I had an 8 AM dentist appointment this morning, and I was afraid that was a sign of what Lent was going to be like this year, but now I don't think so.

I'm reading The Desert: An Anthology for Lent. The preface talks about the desert as a way of exchanging everything for nothing, or rather giving up everything for God. So I was trying to see how that could fit into my spiritual life.

Later, at the service of ashes, I was standing and saying the confession when I was suddenly struck by the fact that I was wearing a T-shirt and jeans. I know this probably sounds a little odd. This is what I typically wear to work, and, being absent-minded, I didn't think about changing for church today. And then during the confession, the inappropriateness of my clothes just jumped out at me. It was very, very much like the dream where you're in public and suddenly realize you're naked.

So what I've taken out of this surreal experience is this: I don't need to give anything up to go into the desert -- I've already got nothing. That is, I come before God as I am. And I think what I need to work on this Lent is being comfortable with that, with coming to God without spiritual pretensions. I need to discover my real relationship with God, to allow myself, purposely, to be known by God.